Learning, Translated: 5 Steps to Kindle Language Learning

Sitting on a beach or in a coffee shop in some far-flung place.

Showing everyone how interesting you are by reading Camus or Murakami in the original language.

A beautiful image, but as the adage goes: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

The actual experience of trying to read books in a foreign language is not usually so beautiful.

My early attempts to read in my target language meant a novel propped open with one hand and a dictionary with the other. It was slow, difficult and clunky.

Thanks to modern tech such as the overlord of e-book readers, the Amazon Kindle, such tribulations are no longer necessary.

As it turns out, the Kindle is a fantastic tool for polyglot bookworms. Yes, you might miss the lovely feel and scent of a real paperback, but what you get in return is incredible.

Unlike with those early attempts and flicking back and forth with a reference book, the power to define and translate new vocabulary is, literally, in the palm of your hand.


What’s the Big Idea? What You Need to Know About Kindle’s Translation Feature

The first thing to note about Kindle’s translation feature is that it only works with certain models of the Kindle—specifically ones with a touch screen, like the Paperwhite or Kindle Fire.

These offer the opportunity to see the definition of words while you’re reading simply by holding your finger on the word you want to look up, provided you have the correct dictionary installed. There are Kindle-friendly monolingual dictionaries in many languages and bilingual dictionaries in common language pairs.

Additionally, some versions of the Kindle will keep track of words you’re learning for you, a feature that works great in conjunction with the FluentU Plus plan.

FluentU is a language learning app that uses authentic videos to teach your target language. Each video comes with annotations that give you instant access to a word’s definition and usages in example sentences—so quite like Kindle’s translation feature, just with videos!

With the FluentU Plus plan, you can create custom multimedia flashcard sets with your Kindle vocab lists in an instant: All you need to do is type the words in.

There are some limitations to Kindle’s translation abilities—for example, you can only translate single words rather than longer idioms and phrases—but the Kindle is a powerful tool to get reading in your target language. Let’s take a look at how.

Learning, Translated: 5 Steps to Kindle Language Learning

1. Make sure you have the correct dictionary installed.

The first thing you need to do is to choose the appropriate dictionary for your language learning. If you’re early in your language learning, a bilingual dictionary might be most appropriate to give you the direct translation of words. If you’re a more advanced learner, it’s better to use a monolingual dictionary and translate yourself.

Not sure how to find a dictionary or get started? This post will have you set up with your new Kindle dictionary before you know it.

2. Select your reading material.

Here are some key tips and things to know when selecting your reading material:

  • As ever with choosing learning materials, make sure you choose material of an appropriate grade. It’s tempting to try the challenge of jumping into a novel like “Ulysses,” but a surefire way of making yourself give up is to select something too tricky!
  • If you search on Amazon for “graded reader” in your target language, you’ll see some options for language learners of different levels. These are particularly useful if you’re still in the early stages of learning a language and would feel more comfortable with something targeted at beginners.
  • Remember that a genre like literary fiction is likely to have complex vocabulary and metaphorical expressions that can be particularly difficult to work out. If you’re still an intermediate reader, consider non-fiction genres like biographies, where texts are likely to be more direct and descriptive.
  • Choose something you would be interested in in your first language. If you have to spend weeks translating a sci-fi novel when you only read romance, it won’t be rewarding for you.
  • There are plenty of options for free texts on the Amazon site. Simply use the check boxes on the left-hand side in the Kindle Store to select the language you want and then sort by price from lowest to highest. Usually these texts are ones that have been around for long enough to be exempt from copyright laws, so just be aware that the language may not be as up-to-date as in a modern text.

3. Start reading.

Don’t expect to understand every word right away—after all, there’s a reason why you’re practicing reading! It’s easy to get frustrated when there are key parts of the text that you don’t fully understand, but it’s important to be patient. Reading to learn a language is naturally going to be more difficult than reading for pleasure in your mother tongue, but it will be all the more rewarding for that reason!

So, when you first come to a word you don’t know, try to understand it from context. Think about cognates or similarities to words you’ve seen before, and if that doesn’t help, then simply try to think of the things that would make sense in that place.

Don’t stop there. The more you interrupt your reading, the more disjointed it will feel and the easier it will be for you to get bored and want to stop. Read to the end of the sentence, paragraph or even page.

Try to summarize to yourself the meaning of what you just read, then go back and read it again.

This time, when you get to the unfamiliar word, tap on it to check the dictionary definition or translation into your language. Go back and re-read sentences and paragraphs to make sure you can translate them properly.

4. Review!

As we know, it’s all well and good to see new words—but they aren’t going to stick just from seeing them once. Perhaps you’re the type who, when reading in your target language, scribbles notes and translations all over the page. Kindle has a note-taking feature, but there’s something you can do that’s even better.

A really handy feature for using your Kindle as a language learning tool has been introduced for the Paperwhite: Vocabulary Builder. Here’s how to use it:

  • When you look a word up by placing your finger on it, it’s automatically added as a flashcard to your vocabulary list. When you want to review, just select the menu from any book and select “Vocabulary Builder.” You’ll see a list of the words you’ve looked up.
  • Scan the words and try to remember their meanings. Then click on each word to see the definition. You can also tap “Usage” to see the context it was used in when you looked it up—the full sentence from the book.
  • You can also work it the other way around. Tap “Books” at the top of the screen to see a list of books in which you’ve looked up words. You can then see the list of words you wanted to translate in that book. That means if you want to go over the vocabulary in the most recent book you read, it’s all there for you in one place.
  • When you want to test yourself, tap “Flashcards” at the bottom. You’ll be shown the words in your Vocabulary Builder in a random order, alongside the full sentence from the book you looked it up in. Try to remember the meaning and then check the definition to see if you were right. When you think you’ve fully learnt the word, you can click “Mark as Mastered” and the word will no longer appear as a flashcard.

If your version of the Kindle doesn’t have this feature, recreate it yourself. Keep a list of the words you had to look up and, at the end of each chapter you read, go over them again. If you can’t remember the word, go back to the chapter, find it and use the context to remind yourself. You could even go so far as to create the flashcards for yourself!

5. On to the next one.

It’s great how a Kindle shows you the progress you’ve made with your reading. You’ll have a full shelf of foreign-language books in your pocket in no time.

Happy reading!

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